A Guide to Laundry Detergent in Japan

Doing laundry is another one of those important things, right up there with brushing your teeth or wearing deodorant. I've received several emails asking me to do a post about laundry detergent and I agreed it's a vital topic to cover. So here you are, a guide to laundry detergent in Japan:

Words to know
You should know at least some of the following words when shopping for laundry detergent, but read on below this chart as well for more use-specific words and ingredients.
洗濯 せんたく sentaku laundry
洗剤 せんざい senzai detergent
粉末 ふんまつ funmatsu powder
石鹸, 石けん, せっけんせっけんsekkensoap
柔軟剤じゅうなんざいjuunanzaifabric softener
漂白剤ひょうはくざいhyouhakuzaibleaching agent
蛍光増白剤けいこうぞうはくざいkeikouzouhakuzaioptical brighteners
詰替用 or つめかえ用つめかえようtsumekaeyourefill

Common ingredients (成分, せいぶん, seibun, ingredients) in most laundry detergents include some kind of surfactant (界面活性剤, かいめんかっせいざい, kaimenkasseizai), though the type included varies depending on the brand and product. Some include more than one type. Some types might mention something about synthetic surfactants (such as not including them). 合成 (ごうせい, gousei) is synthetic, so synthetic surfactant is 合成界面活性剤.

Other detergents use just pure soap (純石けん じゅんせっけん, junn sekken), which you may see as 石けん or せっけん on the packaging.

Many detergents, aside from eco-friendly and baby-specific types, use a color-safe bleach (酸素系, さんそけい, sansokei), such as hydrogen peroxide. Most don't use chlorine bleach (塩素系, えんそけい, ensokei). More on bleach below.

Some detergents use optical brightening agents (蛍光増白剤, けいこうぞうはくざい, keikouzouhakuzai).

Other ingredients (not comprehensive) you may or may not see in the detergent (best to check the ingredients to make sure if you want to avoid something in particular):

enzymes - 酵素  (こうそ, kouso)
alkaline agents - アルカリ剤  (アルカリざい, arukarizai)
water softener - 水軟化剤  (みずなんかざい, mizunankazai)

When buying detergent, liquids (液体, えきたい, ekitai) usually come in bottles (of course), powdered (粉末, ふんまつ, funmatsu) detergent typically comes in small boxes, and solids (固形, こけい, kokei) just look like a bar of soap.

Common Brands

It would take quite a long time to find and list every single brand of laundry detergent you can buy in Japan, and many stores also sell generic store brands as well, but some common ones include (and this will probably also vary by store):
  • arau
  • アリエール  (Ariel)
  • アタック  (Attack)
  • アワーズ  (Awa's)
  • ボールド  (Bold)
  • ブルーダイヤ
  • エマール  (Emal)
  • ファファ  (Fa-Fa)
  • ミヨシ  (Miyoshi)
  • ニュービーズ  (New Beads)
  • トップ  (Top)
For eco-friendly and baby-safe brands, continue reading below. Also keep in mind that some stores such as Tokyu Hands, Loft, kenko.com, Amazon Japan, among others sell a variety of other brands too, many imported.

Detergent for Whites? Colors? 
What you should know about bleach

One thing I noticed while checking out various laundry detergents at the store was that most do not use chlorine bleach. However, many of them use oxygen bleach instead (the color-safe kind, essentially hydrogen peroxide or similar).

漂白剤 (ひょうはくざい, hyouhakuzai) is the term for bleach, bleaching agent, or whitener, but seeing 漂白剤 on a package does not mean it's a whites-only detergent, as I said, they often use hydrogen peroxide.

Check the ingredients if you want to be sure, but most often I saw 酸素系 (さんそけい, sansokei) somewhere on the packaging, which is the oxygen type and also color safe.

It's also important to note that if they do contain oxygen bleach, if you look around on the bottle or box, you might see something like 色柄物にも安心 (色柄物 [いろがらもの, irogaramono] means colored clothes and 安心 [あんしん, anshin] is like "peace of mind" or essentially, "safe"). 色柄物にも安心 is pictured at left, right above 漂白剤, which means this detergent is safe for colored clothes.

Oh, and Oxi-clean is sold in Japan, in case you were wondering.

And just so you know, 塩素系 (えんそけい, ensokei) is chlorine bleach. You can check the ingredients to make sure it's not listed, but if a product does contain chlorine bleach, there are usually warning labels on the outside (saying something like "warning: do not mix" [まぜるな危険] usually, but sometimes other warnings as well).

Acidity and Alkalinity - pH Balance
In case you're wondering about the pH of a particular detergent, you can check somewhere on the back or side of the packaging, but keep in mind it's usually tiny and buried in text. Look for: 液性 (えきせい, ekisei). The following stand for different pH levels (though you'll most likely see only one or two most often):
  • アルカリ性 - alkaline
  • 弱アルカリ性  - slightly alkaline (probably the most common)
  • 中性  - neutral
  • 弱酸性  - slightly acidic
  • 酸性 - acidic

Fabric Softener
So much Downy...
You can buy fabric softener separately of course, (and though there are a few different brands, it's hard not to miss the shelves of giant Downy bottles...), but if you want a laundry detergent with fabric softener in it, look for something like:

柔軟剤 (じゅうなんざい) is fabric softener, and 配合 (haigou) in this case means "mixed in."

Brighten Up
On Optical Brighteners

Otherwise known as optical brightening agents, fluorescent brightening agents or fluorescent whitening agents, these little guys absorb light and thus trick your eye into thinking your clothes are actually whiter and brighter. But, alas, they're really not. And they're not so great for your skin or the environment either.

If you want to avoid them, look for 蛍光 (けいこう, keikou) or 蛍光増白剤 (けいこうぞうはくざい, keikouzouhakuzai) along with 配合していません (not mixed in/not added) on the package somewhere, even if on the back (you can find this in the blue rounded box on the bottle at left).

No Dry Cleaning for Me 
On Delicates

So you want to skip the dry cleaners and wash your wool clothes or other delicates at home. There aren't as many detergent options for this, but try looking for: おしゃれ着, which essentially means "nice clothes." Fancy garments. Expensive stuff. That kind of thing.

You might also want to look for ドライマーク用 (dry mark use), because these types of clothes usually have a "ドライ" mark on the care label.

Some brands, such as Ecover, have a product labeled デリーケートウォッシュ (delicate wash), so try looking for デリーケート too.

Detergent for Tree-huggers
The Eco-friendly Stuff

Arau - no additives
Not all regular daily goods or home stores will carry eco-friendly detergent, though many may carry the Miyoshi brand (ミヨシ), which you may see with 無添加 (むてんか, mutenka, no additives) on the front. Try also looking for 環境洗剤 or エコ洗剤.

Stores like Tokyu Hands and Loft also carry different varieties of environment-friendly laundry detergent, also often free of additives (you'll want to double check though, since some still use sodium lauryl sulfate, if you want to avoid that). Ecover, Pax Naturon and Arau are good brands also; you might find these in a local store. And M mark (Mマーク by 松山油脂, which is also safe for baby.

It's also possible to just get regular pure laundry soap (石鹸, 石けん, せっけん; sekken). The Miyoshi detergent is actually soap with alkaline agents.

Safe for Baby
Baby laundry detergent options vary, but they are relatively easy to find. Although keep in mind you don't necessarily need to use baby-specific detergent unless your baby is extra-sensitive. Personally I just want to avoid the bad chemicals, but I do that anyway, so regular detergents clear of all that work fine for us.

Similar to the eco-friendly stuff, Arau, Pax Naturon, and Miyoshi are good brands without additives, colors, fragrance, bleach, phosphates, etc. The Ecover delicate wash is mostly good - all the ingredients are plant-based according to their company, though this includes sodium lauryl sulfate and fragrance. Combi also makes a diaper-specific detergent free of all the bad stuff: コンビ おむつ肌着洗い.

Most baby-specific detergents are free of the bad stuff, but some are not, so other than those mentioned above, make sure to check the ingredients. To find baby-use detergents, look for ベビー用 (baby use). Some might list what they don't include, possibly with 配合していません or 無添加 or 使用しておりません after them. For example: 合成界面活性剤 (synthetic surfactants), 蛍光剤 (optical brighteners), 漂白剤 (bleaching agent), 着色料 (color), 香料 (fragrance), 保存料 (preservatives) など (etc.) 無添加 (not added).

Drying Indoors 
There's something for that too...

Detergent for drying inside
I found it somewhat amusing that they sell laundry detergent in Japan specific for drying indoors, but it does make some sense considering the rainy season. This type of detergent is formulated to help combat mold and musty odors when drying inside* (though I highly recommend using a dehumidifier for this, if you don't take your washed things to a laundromat to dry and don't own a clothes dryer).

*This doesn't mean you have to use this particular type of detergent if you dry indoors, considering many of the others use oxygen bleach anyway. Or if you have a dehumidifier or hang them in a room where you have heaters or the air conditioner going they'll dry faster and won't get the musty smell.

Anyway, look for: 部屋干し (へやほし, heyahoshi)


Whatever you're looking for, rest assured you should be able to find what you need to help get your clothes squeaky-clean. Er, well, maybe not literally squeaky, but you know what I mean.

In case you're wondering how fast your laundry might hang-dry on any given day, you may want to check out this post: HOW TO: Find out how fast your laundry will dry.

And if you'd like to wash your garments or linens in hot/warm water, read HOW TO: Use hot/warm water in a Japanese washing machine.

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